Red Flag over Babylon: A Brief Overview of the Iraqi Communist Party

This essay will not seek to highlight and deconstruct the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) in full, but provide a brief summary of the party’s existence. To delve into a critical assessment of the party and its history would take a far longer and more fastidious report. However, it is important to lay the foundations for further discussion on the organization’s shortcomings, as such discussion is so sorely needed if the party wishes to continue into the 21st Century.

After over eighty years, the Iraqi Communist Party has come full circle. Originally, it grew from a tiny club on the fringes of the emerging Iraqi political scene into a huge, thriving organization reaching out to all spheres of public life — from Kurdish resistance cells to literary circles — before facing the nearly fatal threat of Ba’athist dictatorship. Present-day Iraq sees its left desperately trying to stay afloat as the country resists balkanization due to ethnic and sectarian polarization financed by outside forces.

Dictated by external circumstance, the Iraqi Communist Party was founded not long after the British Empire drew up the country’s parameters following a long and bloody campaign against the Ottoman Empire. The political residue left over from Ottoman rule was just as vital in shaping Iraq: it established centralized government and reforms such as secularism and extensive education. The Ottomans also gave Iraq its first taste of Arab nationalism, which was taught and encouraged in various institutions and allowed to pass through the transition from Ottoman to European rule, despite unease on the part of the British administration, which wary of an over-educated colony.

In the 1920s, the Ministry of Education consisted of eminent nationalist thinkers. Disaffection with the British mandate grew, as did greater demands for the British administration to be removed. National liberationists dominated radical coffeehouse culture, establishing clubs and societies which attracted the interest of Iraqi communism’s future pioneers. Radical, anti-imperialist nationalism was the rain which would water the seedbeds of Iraq’s future political scene. Discussions of unity between neighboring Arab states against European colonial rule began to emerge. Regardless of whether one’s opinions on nationalism waver towards those of Rosa Luxemburg or side with Lenin on the notion of self-determination, it must be recognized that the nation state as first formulated during the Enlightenment period and nationalism as a conscious identity have come to dominate contemporary political life. Nationalist struggle against imperialism from the turn of the previous century until the present day has been a driving force in resistance movements of “third-world” countries, for better for worse, and Iraq was certainly no exception.

At the same time, rural areas and small towns began to undergo paradigm shifts. While large cities such as Najaf, Basra, and Baghdad became largely detribalized and metropolitan, the rural lords and peasantry found themselves in an uneasy interim between feudalism and capitalism. This increased as an exodus from the countryside began and continued as late as the early 1960s. Former peasants, now employed as toilers and factory workers, would attend these clandestine coffee house meetings where they listened to  radical poetry and essays read by their highly-educated and literate brothers.

The communist movement sneaked in through Iraq from the north, and filtered into the Middle East through Jewish and Armenian Bolsheviks and spokesmen of the Comintern. Amidst the radical nationalists, and partially inspired by their romanticism, Husayn Al-Rahhal formed the first Marxian circle, Mutadarisi Al- Afkar Al-Hurrah (Students for Independent Ideas). While the group itself was not entirely Marxian, it was the womb from which full-fledged Marxist circles would be born. Before the group’s first sessions, Al-Rahhal had angered other radicals through his ardent feminism, atheism, and anti-traditionalism: he offended many by criticizing the feudal roles Iraqi women were expected to occupy. He railed against the veil and the harem. Shariah law, he declared, was outdated and irrelevant. He participated in several clubs before starting his own, while also translating the French Communist paper L’Humanite (which, decades later, would host the ill-fated Charlie Hebdo journalists as regular contributors before their demise at the hands of jihadists).

The youth wing of the club, Nadir Al-Tadamun (The Solidarity Club), was far more crucial than the club as a whole. Initially laughed off by traditionalists as nothing more than “Baghdadi babes,” Nadir Al-Tadamun’s members would play instrumental roles in the country’s largest radical party. One of the “babes,” Yusuf Salman Yusuf, a nationalist and teacher of Assyrian origin, became the first Secretary of the party in 1942 under the cadre name “Comrade Fahad.” On 31 March 1934, the Iraqi Communist Party was officially formed.

Under Yusuf Salman Yusuf’s guidance, the party grew with great success for roughly a decade, expanding its influence beyond its urban centers to branches in the countryside, assisting strikes and walkouts, uprisings and peasant revolts. During those formative years, its principle concerns were combating imperialism while also disseminating its Marxist-Leninist program. The party’s strength was its tight-knit center and well-disciplined membership: it was efficient and well-organized and thus steered clear of several forthcoming disasters.

The anti-communist crackdown by police and secret service agencies leading up to the revolution of 1958 was severe, and at one point following the first intifada in Palestine in 1942, which was supported by the ICP, the party nearly ceased to exist. In 1948, most of the members of the ICP politburo, including its first secretary, were thrown in Al-Kut prison. Despite many of its activists operating undercover, the fact that many had already achieved “martyr” status, the existence of several warring inter-party factions, and the party’s tense rivalry with the smaller Ba’ath Party, the ICP nonetheless maintained its popularity and unity.

Later, under the leadership of Husayn Ahmad Al-Radi (nom de guerre, “Salam Adel”) the organization   superficially harbored mild support for Gamal Abdel Nasser, the folk hero of the Arab world, who had overthrown Egypt’s aristocracy two years before General Abd Al-Karim Qasim removed Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy.

In the days leading up to the revolution of 1958, the ICP had been keeping an eye on the military. When it became clear that soldiers were mobilizing against the British, the organization ordered its members to take up a policy of entryism and enlist in the armed forces. Qasim, the head of the revolutionary vanguard — “the Free Officers” — and later the first prime minister of the Iraqi Republic, saw the party as an opportunity to garner support and weaponry from the Soviet Union. Qasim had been sympathetic to the ICP, while not a fully-subscribed supporter of the party. In return, once the royal family had been disposed of, the ICP were promised representation in the revolutionary government alongside Ba’athists and Nasserites, with whom they had forged alliances during the revolutionary period. They had done so reluctantly, seeing the need to overthrow imperialist domination as a greater priority than opposing the bourgeoisie or political rivals. The ICP further pandered to the rising tide of Arab nationalism, with which it had been so intimately intertwined in its beginnings, as it swept across political discourse. In the process of doing so, it increased its support for Nasserism and reputiated some of its Marxist orthodoxy.

Post-revolution, the ICP dropped its support for Nasserism as the Egyptian politician fell out of favor with his followers. The Nasserites, with support from the Ba’ath Party, were later defeated after a power struggle between Qasim and his rival Abdul Salam Arif, on whether Iraq should join the United Arab Republic (UAR) — a move which presumably would have ushered in a new era for Pan-Arabism. During this dispute, the Iraqi Communist Party sided with Qasim, who eventually won over popular support.

When Iraq had formally become a republic and Qasim was firmly in charge, the promise of representation in government fell short. The ICP was granted one sole representative—Iraqi feminist and central committee member Naziha Al-Delaimy. Moscow encouraged the party not to ask for concessions or further representation in Qasim’s cabinet, desiring a harmonious relationship between Iraq and Russia. Despite providing the biggest base for Qasim’s support, the ICP increasingly bowed to his demands, ceasing to publish various newspapers and courteously toeing the party line. Upon Qasim’s request, it dropped the word “revolutionary” from its program. Finally, in 1960, the ICP application for a party license was declined under the pretext that another communist revolutionary group had applied with the same name, and that it was against the rules to license two organizations with the same title. When the ICP changed its name to evade the regulation, Qasim turned them down once again on the grounds of an obscure technicality. The ruler had truly lived up to his reputation as “the snake charmer.”

Nonetheless, progressive motions were successfully installed by the Revolutionary Council: the “Family Status Law” campaigned for by the Women’s League liberated women and children from feudal constraints. Agrarian laws rolled back tribal ownership of land, and free school meals were distributed in schools. However, the council was not in any sense a Communist council, but liberal in both intent and tone.

While recognizing that the revolution was bourgeois in character and politically devoid of a strong working class component, the Iraqi Communist Party had been hoping that their powerful comrades abroad would sway the masses and current government to the left. Faced with their own litany of problems and embroiled in bitter cold and hot wars, the Soviet Union, China, and the other communist states failed to deliver. The ICP were on their own.

Similarly, the Ba’ath Party no longer trusted Qasim, against whom it still harbored resentment for his decision not to side with Nasser and the UAR. The Kurds were also let down as their promised autonomy failed to materialize, sparking revolts lead by Mustafa Barzani and the Peshmerga. Qasim’s betrayal of the groups who had carried into power would not be without consequence.

In 1968, Qasim was shot live on national television by the Ba’ath Party in a bloody coup which would see the execution of thousands of communists, Kurdish separatists, dissidents, liberals, social democrats, and other assorted political opponents. Whether or not the coup was led by America and the UK in alliance with the violently anti-communist Ba’athist Party has never been fully disclosed, though a Ba’athist minister would later report than the party had arrived in Baghdad on an American train. Just before his execution, Qasim had demanded that the Iraqi Petroleum Company’s large oil distribution centers and refineries, jointly owned by Britain and America, pay huge subsidies to the Iraqi state.

It would take five more years for the ICP to finally come undone. Once the Ba’athist regime had consolidated itself, the two organizations alternated between butting heads and forming uneasy alliances. In 1973, the Ba’athist Party made one last attempt to unite the two organizations in the National Front. Mollified by the nationalization of the oil industry and the Ba’ath Party’s new-found friendship with the Soviet Union, the ICP agreed. These frail ties not only broke very quickly and descended into violent clashes between the two groups, leading Saddam Hussein, who was now president of Iraq, to ban the organization, but also gave the Ba’ath Party inside knowledge of the ICP’s structures and private documents. Thus, the Ba’athists had even more leverage in the subsequent anti-communist backlash.

The following years of Ba’athist rule would be some of the most violent in Iraqi history. The Iraqi Communist Party’s strong membership would be heavily reduced, the remaining members fleeing largely to the Soviet Union or the United Kingdom. The Ba’athist secret police equally eliminated Kurdish separatists, liberals, social democrats, political dissidents, and liberals, as well as many ordinary Iraqis.

When supporting the invasion of Iraq during the early 2000s, the ICP repeated its earlier critical mistake of supporting exterior forces in the hope it would be granted public office. It did not predict that several years of heavy bombing would so severely impact all social and political spheres, leading to the disintegration of Iraqi society.

Brief respite came with the Arab Spring in 2010, but, perhaps due to a lack of morale, both the American and Iranian shadow governments largely went unchallenged by the Iraqi left. Instead, the Iraqi Communist Party stayed hesitantly on the margins of post-war Iraqi politics, existing almost solely in the cities. It enjoyed some support in the 2010 and 2014 elections, but rarely ventured forth an alternative to the rise of politicized Islamic groups and corruption. This hesitance is somewhat understandable, having been declared as “infidels” by the more reactionary and violent of the new Islamist organizations vying for popular support in the post-war power vacuum. However, many members also expressed their frustration at the ICP’s lack of action. The poet Hamza Al-Hilfi, among others, brought these frustrations to light at the 80th anniversary of the Iraqi Communist Party.

Yet over the past year, the organization has seen a resurgence of popularity after pitching its partisans and fighters against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ICP partisans gained ground working in conjunction with Peshmerga and YPJ forces, but also in attracting popular support amongst locals when defending villages and towns. Regular protests at Iraq’s Tahir Square led by Iraqi Communist Youth also have seen increasing numbers. Hope now rests on the shoulders of the party’s youth in maneuvering it through Iraq’s uncertain future, as it has done before, even if the circumstances remain no less difficult and brutal.

Bibliography

Batatu, Hanna. The Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi Revolutions (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1983).

———. The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

Franzén, Johan. Red Star over Iraq: Iraqi Communism Before Saddam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

www.iraqicp.com

Emily Muna Written by:

Emily Muna is a London-raised British Iraqi communist whose interests include accelerationism and technology, Middle Eastern and British politics and history, Marxism, philosophy, technology, cinema and anthropology.